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By HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News
hhacker@dallasnews.com

 

Engineering: It's not just for geeks. In the hands of a good teacher, kids can throw themselves into creative projects like building robots or sending encrypted e-mails.

Southern Methodist University wants to become a national leader in spreading that academic gospel, and campus leaders say a new multimillion-dollar gift will set them on that path.

SMU will announce today that it's receiving $10.1 million to improve how engineering is taught in schools and colleges across Texas and the U.S. The gift the largest in the history of SMU's engineering school comes from the W.W. Caruth Jr. Foundation through the nonprofit Communities Foundation of Texas.

Typically, engineering classes are offered only in college. SMU already has designed engineering courses for high school students and helped train teachers. With the new grant, SMU wants to push into middle and even elementary schools.

"Engineering is what translates the abstract math and science principles into reality," said Brent Christopher, president of the Communities Foundation. When more students understand that, he said, more will pursue engineering degrees.

Much of the work will be done through the university's Institute for Engineering Education, whose mission and staff will be expanded by the hiring of several faculty members with money from the gift.

SMU will create an endowment with $5.1 million of the gift and use the interest to help boost the institute's faculty ranks from the current three to 10. The remaining $5 million will go toward an $18 million building on the site of Caruth Hall, home of SMU's engineering school since 1948. The new structure will bear the same name but will have more than twice the space.

Each year, U.S. colleges and universities award about 100,000 engineering degrees (from bachelor's to doctoral level), according to the U.S. Department of Education. That's about the same number produced 20 years ago but the country now has a bigger population and more complex engineering problems to solve, experts say. A large number of graduate degrees go to foreign students.

"There are more problems in this world than all the engineers can solve," said Geoffrey Orsak, SMU's engineering dean. "And the most critical one to solve is developing the pipeline for more engineers."

With a foundation in physics, calculus and other hair-pulling subjects, engineering scares off many would-be disciples.

"Just the name itself has a very intimidating connotation," Dr. Orsak said. But engineering actually derives its name from ingenuity , he said. "And that's something that excites kids."

Because of the gift, the five-year-old Institute for Engineering Education will now bear the Caruth name.

One of the institute's programs, called the Infinity Project, brings engineering classes to 150 high schools in Texas, as well as to schools in 36 other states.

"We have kids making their own cellphones in high school. From scratch," Dr. Orsak said.

The early exposure appears to be paying off. Dr. Orsak said that students in high school engineering classes sharpen their reasoning skills.

Engineering also seems to be getting more academic street credibility in Austin. Texas students now need four years of math and science to graduate from high school and engineering can count toward the science requirement.

The Caruth gift will expand other efforts, including one to get more girls and women interested in engineering. Nationally, women make up less than 20 percent of engineering majors. At SMU, it's 37 percent.

SMU President Gerald Turner said the donor and school make a good fit. W.W. Caruth Jr., who died in 1990, was an SMU alumnus who developed many shopping centers around Dallas.

"It's certainly consistent with the legacy of Mr. Caruth, who was constantly pushing for innovation, for new ways of approaching things." Dr. Turner said.

SMU owes much of its existence to the Caruth family. Much of the campus is built on land that the family donated in 1911. Caruth money also supports an SMU law clinic, business institute, auditorium and other ventures at the university.

Communities Foundation officials hope the latest gift will serve as a kind of electromagnetic experiment: They want it to attract even more donations from other sources.